Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Objective Criteria

I've just completed the fantastic book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury. Within a few days of finishing the book I was listening to Stanford's Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders podcast and came across a speaker who had trained with Mr. Fisher at the Harvard Negotiation Project (which was the body of work from which the book was derived). One of the key principles that struck me was the value of using objective criteria. This hit home at about 4 AM a few nights ago when my two-year-old son had woke up for the second or third time (it was a blur) and my wife suspected he had an ear infection. She placed her hand on my son's forehead and said he had a fever. Knowing that she likes to sleep with approximately eight vertical inches of goose down comforters and is still cold I suspected any reasonable body temperature probably felt warm to her. I naturally placed my hand on his forehead and he felt fine to me (but I acknowledge I'm probably at the other end of the temperature spectrum [we've yet to find a happy medium temperature while driving in our van]).

My wife thinks my son has a fever and wants to take a logical course of action based upon that assumption: give him some Motrin. I think he's fine and that we should all just go back to bed. The solution? Appeal to an objective standard: take his temperature. Turns out he did have a minor fever and so I was able to adopt my wife's course of action without losing face.

I know this is a trivial example, but the principle is powerful and nuanced. The obvious take away is to attempt to have a meta-conversation about the structure of the negotiations before actually beginning to discuss particular issues. One point to attempt to find agreement on is that both parties would acknowledge and abide by objective criteria and standards. Then you could engage in a conversation on what those might be.

A more subtle take away is that we often are guilty of criticizing someone's intended course of action--assuming that they see the situation the same as we do and are recommending something that just doesn't make sense. We are sometimes even guilty of thinking that by suggesting something so illogical the other party is revealing a flaw in or limits to their intelligence. For instance, it would be illogical for me to suggest we give my son Motrin if I think he does not have a fever. It is much safer to presume that the course of action, or position the other party is taking is, in fact, a logical conclusion to draw from how they see the situation. If their position doesn't make sense, it's a red flag that you need to dig deeper to understand their paradigm.

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